We’ve all done it at some point in our playing career. We get home from work and head straight to our favorite acoustic guitar, ready to jam out for a bit and get a little stress relief from the day.
You pick it up and play a nice, rich, and full-sounding G chord.
Except…it doesn’t sound nice, rich, OR full. In fact, it sounds terrible – almost like you took your neighbor’s cats and threw them in a bag to fight it out. It’s dissonant, disorienting, and just plain awful.
Yep – your acoustic guitar is out of tune.
Tuning an acoustic guitar (really, any guitar) is the first thing that you should do before you start to play. Without doing so, you’re destined to sound terrible, lose enthusiasm, scare off your roommates… the list goes on.
But how do you tune an acoustic? Is there more than one way, and does one method rise above the rest as far as accuracy and ease?
Let’s take a brief look at what tuning is all about and go over a couple options for how to tune an acoustic guitar.
Any stringed instrument needs to be tuned. What that means is that the strings themselves need to have the correct amount of tension applied in order to produce a note at the proper pitch. This is typically done by adjusting the tuning machines on the headstock of your guitar. More tension gives you a higher pitch, and lower tension drops the note down.
Each string has to be tuned to produce the right note. When they aren’t tuned properly in relationship to each other, that’s when sonic chaos breaks loose. Just for reference, when an acoustic guitar is tuned properly, the strings will produce the following notes:
6th (thickest) string: E
5th string: A
4th string: D
3rd string: G
2nd string: B
1st string: E
Simple enough, right?
Truthfully, it is. There are a few different methods that you can use to tune your guitar, though, with some being better than others. So that leads into the next question…
Whether you’re a seasoned pro or the most beginner of beginners, by far the easiest – and most accurate – way to tune your acoustic guitar is by using a tuner.
Tuners are nifty little devices that detect the frequency that a string is vibrating at, and they then translate that information into the corresponding note that is being produced. Depending on the tuner’s design, some will change color from red to green when the string is perfectly tuned, while others may have some sort of indicator needle that will either light up or point straight up.
There are many different types of guitar tuners, each with their own pros and cons. Let’s run through what’s available and you can see which type may be the best choice for your needs.
Clip-on units, also called headstock tuners, pretty much do what the name implies. It simply ‘clips on’ to the guitar on the headstock. The clip itself acts to take the string vibrations and direct them to the tuner itself.
These types of tuners are great because they are small enough to fit in your case or gig bag, they can be fairly accurate, and – here’s a big one – they typically are pretty cheap. It’s not uncommon to find models that are under $20. On top of that, since they work directly off the vibrations from the guitar, you can use them on any type of acoustic guitar (even those that do not have any sort of pickup system).
They do have some downsides though. If you tend to move around a lot when you play, then they may tend to fall off.
In that case, consider other options…
Pedal tuners are units that look like effects pedals. They are used for acoustic (and electric) guitars that are being amplified for live or recording purposes, and they conveniently fit right in the signal chain (typically being the first pedal in line right from the guitar). The output of the pedal tuner then goes out directly to the amp (or direct box into a PA), or it can go to any other number of effects on your pedalboard.
These types of tuners don’t measure vibrations in the same way as a clip-on. Instead of getting the vibrations directly from the guitar, the output signal from the guitar’s pickup is analyzed by the tuner’s circuitry. The end result is the same – you’ll be able to tell if your note is sharp (higher pitch than it should be), flat (lower pitch than the standard), or right in tune.
One neat feature with pedal tuners is that they typically mute the output when they are turned on. That means that your audience won’t hear you tuning up; with a clip-on unit you’ll have to turn the volume down on your guitar.
They are handy for sure, but they typically are more expensive than most clip-on units. That, and if you have an acoustic guitar that does not have any sort of pickup or preamp system, then you may be out of luck.
Smartphones are like opinions these days…everybody has one!
There are many apps out there that will give you the ability to tune your guitar right on your phone. Some of the more advanced ones may have a small cost, and some are completely free. Even if you do pay for one, the cost is usually less than even the least expensive clip on tuner you’ll find.
While they are convenient and cost-effective, there are tradeoffs. Apps use the microphone in your phone to collect the sound waves from your guitar. As a result, tuning stability and accuracy may not be as good as an actual, physical, guitar tuner. Also, they really aren’t the right tool for the job if you need to tune up in the middle of a gig.
So there you have it. Tuning your acoustic guitar is a process that you must go through every time that you pick it up to play. While it is a fairly easy process, it can be made even easier with the right tools and basic knowledge of how to tune an acoustic guitar. With all of the different types of guitar tuners on the market, finding the type that works best for your particular situation may just take some experimenting.
Sure, you can tune your guitar manually, but that is a process that takes a good ear for music and is better left for players that have more experience under their belt. Even then, the speed and accuracy that you’ll get from a good tuner really can’t be beat.
So…going back to the beginning of this article, don’t let your guitar sound so bad that it’ll clear a room with a single chord. Learn how to tune an acoustic guitar, and get yourself used to doing it whenever you play. Do that, and you’ll always sound as good as you possibly can.